Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Prejudices Past and Present

Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an eminent African American scholar at Harvard University, was arrested last week on charges of disorderly conduct and racial harassment. Yes, you read that list bit correctly - Prof. Gates was charged with racially harassing the man who thought he was breaking into his own home. And the disorderly conduct? He got angry and yelled at the police officer who thought he was breaking into his own home.

The comedy of errors began when Prof. Gates had difficulty opening his jammed front door. Consequently, Gates "opened his back door with his key and tried unsuccessfully from inside his home to open the front door. Eventually, Gates and his driver forced the door open from the outside...." A white woman passing by observed this activity and called the police to report a possible break-in. Up to this point, the story isn't too bad: a woman sees activity that looks suspicious and reports it to the police.

I have to wonder, though, what made her suspicious? Was it the fact that Prof. Gates was a black man trying to enter a home in a neighborhood that - I'll take a wild guess, here - is not predominantly populated by black people? Would she have responded the same way to a white man trying to unjam that same door? I'll never know the answers to those questions, but they're questions that every white person in the USA should consider soberly.

Moving on, the suspicion of unlawful activity was reported, and the police dispatched an officer to the scene to investigate the claim. Unfortunately, the police officer they sent appears to have attended Charm School with Genghis Khan. The long and short of it is that Gates and the officer had words, and the officer over-reacted by arresting the professor. The Cambridge police made the right call and dropped the charges yesterday. Still, it was an ugly chain of events, and one can't help thinking that race played no small part in the ugliness.

President Obama commented on the incident this evening:
What's been reported though is that the guy forgot his keys, jimmied his way to get into the house. There was a report called in to the police station that there might be a burglary taking place. So far, so good, right? I mean, if I was trying to jigger into -- well, I guess this is my house now, so... it probably wouldn't happen. But let's say my old house in Chicago. Here, I'd get shot.

But so far, so good. They're -- they're reporting. The police are doing what they should. There's a call. They go investigate what happens.

My understanding is, at that point, Professor Gates is already in his house. The police officer comes in. I'm sure there's some exchange of words. But my understanding is, is that Professor Gates then shows his I.D. to show that this is his house and, at that point, he gets arrested for disorderly conduct, charges which are later dropped.

Now, I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that. But I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there's a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact.

... [W]hen I was in the state legislature in Illinois, we worked on a racial profiling bill because there was indisputable evidence that blacks and Hispanics were being stopped disproportionately. And that is a sign, an example of how, you know, race remains a factor in the society.

That doesn't lessen the incredible progress that has been made. I am standing here as testimony to the progress that's been made. And yet the fact of the matter is, is that, you know, this still haunts us.

And even when there are honest misunderstandings, the fact that blacks and Hispanics are picked up more frequently and often time for no cause casts suspicion even when there is good cause.

And that's why I think the more that we're working with local law enforcement to improve policing techniques so that we're eliminating potential bias, the safer everybody is going to be.

It's been less than a year since the American presidential election campaign was marred by racism. To bring the matter closer to home, I hear people of several ethnic backgrounds express a variety of ethnic, racial, religious, gender and other prejudices every day. I hope I don't express any such things myself, but, to be honest - I probably do sometimes. I'm still trying to unlearn a lot of what my culture has taught me about race, gender, religion, etc. It will be a lifelong battle that will require me to constantly measure myself as I am against the self that I want to be, and to keep striving to reach that ideal. If Americans are serious about living up to our national ideals, we all must wage similar battles - individually and corporately - to remove both past and present prejudices from our lives and society.


Barbara said...

I'm sure if we were all honest, we would all have to acknowledge that we steriotype and have racial and gender profiles. As long as we're able to acknowledge it and keep it in our active thinking, we can change our thinking when it happens.

Dave said...

Gates was clearly angry at the officer and likely said a few things that were heated and inappropriate. Two of the issues I have with arrest are, 1) that the officer in his report acknowledges that while in the house he was all but absolutely certain Gates as the owner of the house, and 2) that after checking the ID and other documents to confirm Gates was the owner the officer invites Gates outside and then arrests him.

He arrests him outside because anything that Gates said in the home was not public and in the privacy of his home, AND not a criminal offense. BUT if Gates said something outside on the front steps of his own home, it is now public and a disorderly conduct charge could be made. In other words, the police officer used his knowledge of the law to entrap Gates and legally extract his revenge for the tirad he experienced inside. Such retribution is shameful.